Like Father, Like Son

Like Father, Like Son

Jan 19, 2008, 3:13 AM |

I visit my dad every few months in Chicago, and though my brother tells me he taught me to play chess when I was five (I don't remember much about this, except my favorite pawn formation) I only began to seriously delve into the game about three years ago, when my dad got me a board for Christmas. Immediately, I began playing consistently against a variety of people -- though, let it be known, in retrospect I am now realizing that almost none of them were competent. Still, even lacking an understanding of what qualifies great chess and what it looks and feels like, I desired something to drive me to my full potential.

And so, during my visits to Chicago, I began playing against my father.

He's played since he was around 20 -- so, easily, a good 35 years -- and rumor has it that he and a fellow chess enthusiast at one point both reached a pinnacle where the slightest error almost always decided the game's outcome in the opponent's favor.  Sadly, though, life took them their separate ways; my dad's chess muscles began to accumulate rust. In teaching my brother, he got a little of his old self back, but my brother soon had a family and a home to take care of; again, my dad accumulated rust, without a good opponent and unaware of the internet's chess resources.

Until I came along.

It's become a bit of a tradition: every time I visit my father in Chicago, we fit a good amount of games between the family gatherings and errands and activities. At first, I lost every game; my father didn't need much of his old skill to beat me, and what he did recover he employed ruthlessly, forcing me to learn from my mistakes.

Gradually, I got better, and started to lose my notorious quitter's complex, fighting each game out to the end (though the outcome was never any different).

Then, between two visits last year, I played harder than ever; against anyone in my class who knew how to play, and occasionally against my older cousin. Everywhere I went, chess squares appeared, and pieces moved and interacted, independent of my whim: on the sidewalk; in the lines of my notebook pages; on leaves; in my cereal. The time came to visit Chicago again during school break, and my dad's chessboard saw more games between us than in all of my previous visits combined. I only wish I could say that at the time I knew how to record games, and had known the value of doing so -- because, of all the chess games I ever played up to and during that visit, there was one game against my father that I never could have dreamed up, and that I always wanted to remember.


That game began like any other, after a series of rounds in which I played well into the middlegame, surviving without too much difficulty, until the tables turned -- always around the same point in the game -- and my father gained significant advantages, thrashing my confidence and making my endgame consistently sloppy.

I was shaking off my previous defeat as we reset the board, and settled on a goal to play the best game I could possibly play, no matter how long each move took to think out or how impatient my dad would get. As always, I played White (dad's policy was to give me every advantage he could without going easy on me or starting without a power piece); we ran through the uniform four-move sequence that had, for the most part, started off almost all of our games. The game progressed in a relatively even and steady manner that we had both gotten used to, and I laid out, as always, a series of four-or-five-move backup plans for every move I made -- until, as the middlegame was just beginning, I abandoned my preconceived strategy and made a bold stroke, the likes of which I had never tried before -- with my dad, or anyone else (but especially so with my dad; I never dared take a risk against him).

I spotted its seemingly decisive flaw almost immediately afterward, and forced myself not to watch as my dad responded with the exact move I had predicted. In the back of my head, through my sudden drop in confidence, there was a glimmer of pride: I was able to predict my dad's moves!

Still, my mistake was huge. I didn't even bother looking for escape routes; the loss would be swift, but nowhere near painless. I reached for my king and put it down; my dad shook his head and picked the piece back up, placing it on the board again. "You haven't lost yet; remember that," he told me. "Do all you can with what's left. Look at the board. You still might have a chance to at least force stalemate."

Then I remembered my goal: to play the best game I could possibly play, no matter how long each move took to think out or how impatient my dad would get. His words echoed in my mind.

You haven't lost yet; remember that.

Do all you can with what's left.

Look at the board.

Look at the board.

Look at the board.

I don't know how I did it -- that's why I wish I had been able to write the game down; I don't even remember what pieces it eventually came down to -- but somehow, at that moment, something new clicked in my head, and when I leaned forward to scrutinize the position, every move seemed different from before. I was eliminating options I normally would have dwelled on; I was thinking out sequences after I decided on my objective, not the other way around, as I had taught myself to do.

During the remainder of the middlegame, my dad made a few blunders -- which, to this day, I assume were made on purpose, to test if I could spot them -- and I capitalized on every one, quickly gaining the lead, and eventually wiping out every one of his pieces. In the endgame our two kings raced around the board, as I repeatedly tried catching him without success; even with a piece advantage to help me, I had no idea how to play the different endgames, having never actually studied chess before --a fault that, thankfully, my father shared.

Cluelessness regarding chess theory notwithstanding, I finally won.


I returned to New York from that visit, curious about Bobby Fischer -- to whom my dad had made several references as we played -- and beginning to wonder if I could find some way to improve my chess online. Lo and behold, I discovered countless chess resources on the ‘net; among them, the “Bookup 200 Express” program, which I used to view and analyze loads of Fischer’s games -- though at my level, the play was too strong for me to follow and comprehend – and Yahoo! Chess (excuse me if it’s not the best place for playing chess online; with my Yahoo! e-mail account, it was the first thing I happened upon). I joined my school’s chess club (through which I will be entering tournaments in the city, come spring), and shared my chess mania with another member of the club -- the top player in my school -- who lent me chess books to study and pointed me in helpful directions on the internet for new chess programs.

During my break from school, around Christmas, I stayed in Chicago for the first time since I beat my dad in chess. My fanaticism had stirred into frenzy; after a couple of refresher games I started developing good counters against my dad, and within the first few days I had racked up several wins. Thankfully, this time I knew how to record them, and had pen and paper ready.

Here are my two favorites; I’ll post more in the future.